Sunday, December 17, 2017

Jazz & JFK by Steven Harris - Part 3

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Steven D. Harris is the author of The Kenton Kronicles: A Biography of Modern America’s Man of Music, Stan Kenton. New and Used Hardcover and Paperback version are still available via online sellers such as Amazon, AbeBooks or at

In celebration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s birth centennial, Steven penned a 10,000 word essay on the late President of the United States and his relationship to Jazz and has kindly consented to allow JazzProfiles to publish it on these pages in five, consecutive parts.

Just a word in passing, you may come across some technical glitches involving spacing, et al and we ask you to accommodate them as they are the result of formatting using two, different platforms.

Jazz & JFK – in celebration of the 2017 Kennedy birth centennial. An intriguing five–part feature on the President's relation to the music, the artists and their heartfelt reflections––then and now.

By STEVEN D. HARRIS © 2013, 2017.


"How I mourned that man's death,” Lionel Hampton wrote of Jack in his co–written autobiography. Hamp was a lifelong Republican; still he was impressed with how his president “was working to help black people.” In February 1963, the jazz great was privileged to take part in a White House function representing his race. He was just one in a contingent of 1,100 of the nation’s leading black powers. The reception marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (held appropriately on Lincoln’s birthday). It was “an occasion as special as any,” the jazz man would fondly recollect.

For pianist–composer Thelonious Monk, JFK’s silencing would hit a kind of snag in his career. But the timing, in an artistic sense, would turn out beneficial. Around August of ‘63, the eccentric musician was approved for a special Time cover–story for its November 29 issue. Monk would be the fourth and last major jazz figure to appear on a Time cover, in the rear of Armstrong (1949), Brubeck (1954) and Ellington (1956).

With the grim reality of the President at press time, that all changed. Time reportedly destroyed some three million copies of its Monk issue already printed. Accordingly, magazine heads rushed to substitute the story and cover with the new power man in office: the presiding Lyndon B. Johnson. (For this decision, Time received countless calls and letters in anger and protest, since many Americans expected JFK to be the natural cover choice. But Time took a traditional stance of resisting a deceased person for its cover (though there were already some exceptions). The Monk issue was re–scheduled with a run date of Feb. 28, 1964.

This is where the matter of advantage came in. As the Time story was being set, an important concert lay in the works. Monk was forming a large ensemble to debut at Town Hall at the new Lincoln Center in New York, where it was to be taped for posterity. The date, by pure chance, was also assigned for Nov. 29, 1963. However, due to inadequate provisions, the program was set ahead for Dec. 30. Surviving rehearsal tapes indicate that the band sounded unprepared and ragged, but the added month for practice made all the difference. Monk's heralded concert was pressed for an album, resulting in rave reviews.

The event billed as New York's [45th] birthday Salute to President Kennedy would be a far lesser footnote of Camelotian lore, if not for the involvement of a sultry film goddess. Marilyn Monroe materialized in a scintillating spot that had her appearing next to naked in Madison Square Garden. The date was May 19, 1962 (ten days in advance of Jack’s actual birthday). The presidential function served as a fundraiser for Democrats, luring in a crowd of more than 15,000. The entertainment proved eclectic that eve, amounting to fifteen acts with alternating emcees––from opera's Maria Callas to actor Henry Fonda and that beloved laugh–getter, Jack Benny. To wit, two singers who would set a jazz wave throughout the indoor arena: Ella Fitzgerald and her trio, followed by Peggy Lee‘s quintet (playing scores by her conductor, Benny Carter).

Being aware of the historical worth, Stan Levey (Ella's drummer for the night) snuck an 8–millimeter movie camera into the pit with him. When he wasn't playing, Stan focused on the action. His color film segments included Jack from the stage angle making his grand entrance, as well as Marilyn's glorified arrival. Levey's widow Angela confirmed for the writer: "The filming wasn't allowed at all––those were the rules. But because Stan [was acquainted with] the president, he got away with it. Stan had known Kennedy because he played at different rallies before he became president." The 8–minute master footage by Stan (who died in 2005) was sold by Julien's Auctions in 2012 for $3,200.

In Jack's closing remarks at the Garden, he thanked the performers with a special nod to Peggy Lee, "who got out of a sick bed to come tonight." If illness nearly sidelined the singer, nobody could tell––she appeared absolutely radiant. A more versatile and looming talent than Marilyn (in the writer’s mind), Peg also bested her blonde counterpart in overall allure. (Frankly, I wince at combining the two in the same sentence.) But it was the actress who ruled the proceedings (Mrs. Kennedy was conveniently absent)––and her legend would only expand, since she would die in ten weeks. But even Monroe deserves a mention, if only for the accompaniment provided her on this night:

It was jazz pianist Hank Jones who keyed Marilyn in with some simple arpeggios to set in motion her birthday greeting to Mr. President, which segued into a satirized Thanks for the Memory. Both tunes took up a mere eight bars, still this infamous minute is what historically stands out. Hank relived the unforgettable night during an interview for NPR in 2006: "In 16 bars, we rehearsed 8 hours...I think that's something like an hour per bar of music! You know, she was very nervous and upset. She wasn't used to that kind of thing..." Marilyn also owed a debt of gratitude to Peggy that night. Peg was temperamental about how she was lit on stage, and it was her own borrowed lighting detail that would enhance Marilyn's chassis for all to see.

Note: Shortly after this event, Marilyn would mysteriously invite Hank (and another male party) to her Brentwood abode, ending up in a sort of interrogation of the two men. (Her home was wired with secret tape devices and their chat was supposedly recorded). Marilyn's intent: to probe them about their knowledge about the President and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, in order to expose them. After the tense questioning, Hank reasoned with the unstable star: "I don't know what the Kennedys did to you, but you ought to let it go…"

Benny Goodman had an opportune meet with JFK that summer of ‘62, due to a heralded State Department tour (literally years in the making) of the USSR. For the six–week trip, May 30 thru mid–July, Benny brought with him a newly organized crew of 22. His book was typically restricted to the kind of anachronistic dance scores the master preferred, but with the class of swinging musicianship (among Benny’s best), it made up for the outmoded repertoire.

Before Benny's departure, the band did some break–in dates, which included a banquet sponsored by White House press photographers. It took place at the Sheraton Park Hotel in New York City. In his assisted autobiographical account, Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz, the returning BG pianist elaborates on the presidential function. After the show, the various artists formed a circle with Jack greeting them individually. Teddy was surprised to be singled out by the President, even before introductions. Jack called him by his surname: "Hello, Wilson––I hear you're going to Russia." "Yes, sir," Teddy replied. "Well," Kennedy told him, "do a good job." "We'll try."

Benny’s Moscow debut was attended by Nikita Khrushchev. If the severely square Premiere ever expressed his approval of jazz, it was reluctantly––and his sardonic smiles, in response to the rhythm, were surely just for show. The music had long been denounced by Hitler and Stalin as something decadent, if not vulgar––and it is not hard to fathom that Khrushchev felt similarly. No matter, the tour grossed nearly a half–million dollars.

Upon his return home, Benny received an invite to the White House on July 24. To go by existing newsreels, the congratulatory handshake from the President to Benny, like Khrushchev, was strictly for appearances. Jack appears blasé alongside Benny when caught on the sunny grounds at the West Wing Colonnade. (The President’s pseudo tan––caused by a variety of pills (some illegal) for his ailments, made him appear healthy when he was anything but.)

After the moment, Benny was asked by reporters about the President's musical preference. The King of Swing was mystified: "Gee, I don't know what his taste is, but...he used to come to the Ritz roof [atop the Ritz–Carlton Hotel] many years ago, when I played there with my band in Boston." This was likely around the period Kennedy was first elected as a Massachusetts Congressman in late 1946.


Next to music, Shelly Manne’s passion (imparted by wife Flip) was breeding horses for show––the couple won numerous awards in Standardbred competitions. When the tragedy unfolded, Shelly was miles away from operating his Hollywood jazz spot, the Manne-Hole, having been booked for a gig in Kentucky. While there––Nov. 22 in fact––the Mannes made a detour in Louisville for a Saddlebred horse sale. Flip told the writer: “The shooting was announced over the loudspeaker. We didn’t know the President was dead [yet]. I remember us going back to the hotel in tears and being glued to the TV.” Flip, now 96, can’t recall if Shelly’s club remained out of service at the time of national mourning. The Gerry Mulligan quartet with Bob Brookmeyer was booked that week, with the Stan Getz Quartet scheduled to take over on the evening of the President’s burial.

Elsewhere on that day, Nov. 22, Rosie Clooney––who had been active in JFK’s 1960 campaign––was guesting on the Garry Moore show from the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. "In the middle of a song,” she wrote in her published memoir, “the [TV] monitors suddenly cut away…horrified, transfixed, we watched as the news came in. The show couldn't go on, not now." Five years on, the singer would be part of Bobby Kennedy’s traveling entourage on the '68 campaign trail. She was there that day of June gloom when the Senator was felled at the Ambassador Hotel. It was the catalyst to a traumatic nervous breakdown that she wouldn’t recover from for a full year."  (Jazz & JFK to be continued in Part 4.)

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